The Victorian Government released a strategy for protecting Victoria’s biodiversity in April 2017. This article is the third in a series in Park Watch (see the June and September 2017 editions) that addresses the strategy and why it matters.
Protecting Victoria’s Environment – Biodiversity 2037 is the first formal statewide long-term biodiversity plan in two decades, and it contains a range of priorities and initiatives. Chapter Four, ‘A healthy environment for healthy Victorians’ explores why spending time connecting with nature is good for our health as individuals and as a society.
he Victorian Government’s Victorian Memorandum for Health and Nature is also a significant step in recognising that looking after nature also means looking after the health of people and their communities.
Why would a doctor care about nature?
This is the question I have been asked when explaining the work I do for Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), and it’s also what I’m often asked when present at a gathering of environmental organisations. For many people, the link between the natural world and human health isn’t initially clear. So, I was delighted to be asked to write for this publication about the importance of nature for health, and the recent moves by the Victorian Government to start building connections between the health and environment departments.
DEA’s vision ‘healthy planet, healthy people’ encapsulates our understanding that without a healthy natural world we cannot have optimal human health. Natural systems stabilise our climate, clean our water and air, provide healthy soils in which we grow our food, and provide a resource from which more than half of all medicines have come. Biodiversity, the extraordinary variety of different plants and animals that are connected to one another and to us by an intricate web of life, is especially important for our health. We know that greater genetic variety is protective in human health, and this is true for all living things. The loss of variety through monoculture farming and forestry is detrimental to the strength of the ecosystem in which we exist.
Most health problems facing our communities right now are lifestyle related, and one of the best discoveries I’ve made is that simply spending time out in nature will help prevent and treat almost all of them. Getting outside into nature encourages physical activity, which protects our heart and also reduces the chances of us being overweight. It allows for healthy vitamin D levels to develop, elevates mood, reduces stress, improves focus and may even improve immune function. It is a simple, inexpensive way of managing many complex health problems like diabetes, depression and anxiety.
Time outside in nature is especially important for today’s children who are spending too much time inside, sitting down, usually looking at a screen.
Studies have shown that for children effected by conditions like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) a walk through a park compared to a walk through a shopping centre is associated with a reduction in symptoms. Simply increasing the density of plants in a school ground improves the ability of students to focus on return to class after a break. Nature Play Week is a celebration of the many initiatives occurring throughout Victoria to help more children get outside and is an excellent resource for families.
Even having a view of nature out of your hospital window has been shown to hasten recovery, reduce the need for pain relief and lead to earlier discharge following surgery. Our Royal Children’s Hospital was built so that almost all patients have a view of surrounding Royal Park for this very reason. At the Royal Talbot rehabilitation hospital, therapeutic horticulture provides an important tool for aiding recovery, and patient gardens improve the wellbeing of patients, staff and visitors.
In overseas studies, time spent in forests has been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve immune function and elevate mood. In Japan, forests are accredited to provide a place for patients to go, as prescribed by their physician, to address stress related illness.
It is encouraging to see our Victorian Government’s recent Memorandum for Health and Nature and Biodiversity 2037 plan clearly articulating the importance of nature for health.
This represents an enormous opportunity to advocate for the protection of natural places for health reasons. I hope to see a day soon when the Great Forest National Park is a place used for its health benefits – a place I can prescribe a visit to for my patients!
Dr Dimity Williams has been working in general practice for over 20 years and is the Biodiversity Convenor for Doctors for the Environment Australia (www.dea.org.au). She is a co-founder of the Kids in Nature Network and Nature Play Week (www.natureplayweek.org.au).
First published in Park Watch December 2017 edition.